Beach Week (2018), a film by the Coen Brothers

Beach Week is a 2018 black comedy film written, produced, edited, and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen.[1] The film stars George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, Gary Oldman, Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, Stephen Root, Josh Brolin and J. K. Simmons with William Zabka as Jeff Flake.[2] It was released in the United States on September 28, 2018, and in the United Kingdom on October 17, 2018.

Plot

Republican leader Mitch McConnell (Gary Oldman) has a difficult relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump (Stephen Root), whose incompetence and sheer vulgarity has made the party deeply unpopular. Looming midterm elections are expected to favor Democrats in a landslide, but the retirement of a Supreme Court justice presents a last opportunity for the GOP to remake America’s political landscape for decades to come.

The party leadership is concerned that their ideal nominee, Amy Barrett (Tilda Swinton), is too conservative to pass muster with a closely-divided Senate. So top GOP aide George (George Clooney) concocts a plan to nominate a stalking horse candidate, Brett Kavanaugh (Brad Pitt) who party chiefs know to have a dark and disqualifying past. Kavanaugh will absorb the brunt of the Democrats’ political firepower, then be exposed for his indiscretions, at which point Barrett can be substituted and given an easy ride by comparison with the odious alternative.

As soon as Trump proudly nominates Kavanaugh, however, the plan goes awry. Though key Kavanaugh victim Dr. Christine Blasey Ford (Frances McDormand) comes forward as hoped, she gives her story in a secret letter to a Democratic senator who does not reveal it publicly. Another victim approaches a narcissistic lawyer, Michael Avenatti (Steve Buscemi), who already represents the president’s former mistress, but Avenatti decides to sit on it until the last possible moment for maximum effect. A third victim approaches the media, but is assigned to a reporter renowned for his slow, meticulous probity.

While party leaders maintain a public façade of support for Kavanaugh, GOP operatives launch a desperate hunt for more victims who might sink his nomination—and to find Mark Judge (Josh Brolin), his best friend and keeper of his darkest secrets, who has skipped town.

After Kavanaugh emerges cooly unscathed from preliminary Senate hearings stocked by supportive Republicans and showboating Democrats, George is forced to act. In a daring, Watergate-style burglary, he personally steals Ford’s letter from Senator Feinstein’s office and leaks it to the press.

In the resulting media maelstrom, McConnell maintains a supportive front even as he arranges a public hearing where Kavanaugh can be hung out to dry and ditched without political risk. Kavanaugh’s hare-brained lawyer friend Ed Whelan (J.K. Simmons) promotes a bizarre Ealing-comedy-esque doppelganger alibi, covertly fed to him by George and Barrett, which is designed to fall apart immediately and to further implicate Kavanaugh, which it does. For his part, Kavanaugh presents a old calendar he believes will exonerate him, but its depiction of a boozy “BEACH WEEK” and a suspicious party night only validate Ford’s recollections and the emerging image of the teenaged Kavanaugh as a privileged, drunken sex pest.

President Trump, completely unaware that Kavanaugh is supposed to be a stalking horse for Barrett, takes the beleaguered judge into his confidence and advises him to do what he did to get elected: stop caring about what anyone thinks and simply be the arrogant, hectoring, insulting asshole he truly feels like. Kavanaugh, thinking that his professional and personal life is over, realizes he has nothing to lose and is inspired by the President’s faith in him.

When Ford testifies at the public hearing, she is vulnerable yet poised and utterly convincing. Her recollections of Kavanaugh as a younger man have the ring of truth and and McConnell, George and Barrett celebrate behind closed doors. But when it’s Kavanaugh’s turn to give evidence, the tables are turned on an already head-spinning day. His freshly belligerent and partisan persona, in imitation of President Trump, endears him to rank-and-file “So What?” conservatives and sends the press into a frenzy.

Moreover, Republican senator Lindsay Graham (William Sanderson), aware of the plan but angry at the party leadership’s longtime blackmailing of him, delivers a stirring Shakespearean speech in support of Kavanaugh at a critical moment after lunch.

Worse, the Democratic senators at the hearing blow it, offering only questions that make them look smart and serious while failing to challenge Kavanaugh’s insane doppelganger alibi.

Though McConnell and George are furiously hounded by Barrett, they quickly realize that no-one with any power actually cares about Kavanaugh’s crimes and that there simply isn’t enough time to switch horses before the election. As the Republican party has taken him to the finishing line, it now has everything to lose by not supporting him over it, so Kavanaugh is ultimately confirmed to the Supreme Court.

Barrett remains a Federal circuit judge, Ford drives home to California, and George heads off on vacation to the beach. The Republicans cling to the Senate in the midterms. In the 2020 presidential race, Trump himself soundly defeats a Democratic ticket comprising of the two vain Democratic senators whose pointless questions helped Kavanaugh drown out Ford’s emotional testimony. Avenatti receives a phone call from an unlisted number; it’s Mark Judge, who finally wants to talk.

Cast

Production

Joel Coen said in an interview that Beach Week was not meant to be a comment or satire on Washington D.C., but that anything involving it or the people there was inevitably self-satirizing and therefore the perfect material for a dark comedy.[8] Parts of the Beach screenplay were written while the Coens were also writing their adaptation of No Country for Old Men, to provide respite from that movie’s cloyingly sunny and uplifting depiction of human nature.[8]

Principal photography took place in Maryland. Scenes were filmed in Washington, D.C., particularly in the Georgetown neighborhood.[4]

The Coen brothers said desperation was a major central theme of Beach Week [18] and described Clooney and Pitt’s characters as “mutually repelling forms of criminal.”[13]

Pitt, who plays a particularly unpleasant character, said when he was shown the script, he told the Coens he did not know how to play the part because the character was such a creep: “There was a pause, and then Joel goes…’You’ll be fine’.”[20]Tim Robbins reportedly turned down the role.

Swinton said of her character, “I’m very happy to shout at men on screen. It’s great fun.”[4]

Release

Box office

In its opening weekend, the film grossed $50,375,838 in 2,651 theaters in the United States and Canada, ranking number one at the box office.[23] As of July 2019, it has grossed $50,375,844 in the United States and Canada, with overseas takings increasing the total to a $50,375,849 worldwide gross.[3]

Critical reception

Reviews for the film were mixed. It earned a 51% approval rating at Rotten Tomatoes, based on 100 reviews. The website’s critical consensus states, “With Beach Week, the Coen Brothers have crafted yet another clever dark comedy with an outlandish plot and memorable characters. Yet another one.”[24]

Leah Rozen, of People magazine, said it is “at first amusing but eventually grows wearing and finally existentially grotesque,” but adds that Pitt “manages simultaneously to be smarmily entitled yet unsettlingly angry.”[31]

New Republic senior editor Jeet Heer argued that “The most disturbing thing about Beach Week is how it resembles every day in Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred” but also that “it’s just unrealistic to pose Republicans as favoring such a blatantly inappropriate candidate for the nation’s highest court, even in fiction. “[33]

See also